New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) speaks during a news conference and budget bill signing ceremony in the Red Room at the state Capitol on April 1 in Albany, N.Y.  (Mike Groll/ AP)

If you doubt the power of the charter school movement, consider this: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, just  slapped down New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, over the issue. Or, as education historian Diane Ravitch put it in this piece for the New York Review of Books blog:

How did a privately managed school franchise that serves a tiny portion of New York’s students manage to hijack the education reforms of a new mayor with a huge popular mandate?

The answer: Follow the money.

De Blasio has long made clear that unlike his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, he is not in love with the charter school movement. While campaigning last year, De Blasio said he wanted to stop co-locating charter schools in buildings with traditional public schools because he thought the latter got a raw deal. And he said he wanted to require charters already in co-locations to pay rent to the city. City voters elected him on this platform.

When he took office this year, De Blasio started down this track not realizing that an oncoming train would derail him. Who was on that train? Cuomo, the state legislature, wealthy Wall Street backers of charter schools and Eva Moskowitz, a charter school operator with whom de Blasio has long had tense relations.

De Blasio had inherited plans from the last administration for 45 co-locations (some charter into traditional schools, others traditional schools into other traditional school buildings and sharing all space except classrooms). De Blasio’s new administration approved 36 and rejected nine. Seventeen of the 45 involved charter schools, and he allowed 14 of them to go through. The decisions were based on criteria including disallowing elementary schools from being co-located in high schools and refusing to allow co-locations that could affect space needed for special-needs students.

The three that were rejected were proposed by Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter network, but five Success co-locations were approved.  I repeat: Three were rejected and five were approved. That wasn’t good enough for Moskowitz, so she began a campaign against de Blasio. It was something.

She closed 22 Success charter schools for a day so students and their parents could be bused to Albany for a rally, where a supportive Cuomo appeared promising to “save charter schools.” Then, from this New York Times article:

As the governor worked to solidify support in Albany, his efforts were amplified by an aggressive public relations and lobbying effort financed by a group of charter school backers from the worlds of hedge funds and Wall Street, some of whom have also poured substantial sums into Mr. Cuomo’s campaign (he is up for re-election this fall). The push included a campaign-style advertising blitz that cost more than $5 million and attacked Mr. de Blasio for denying space to three charter schools…

A lot was riding on the debate for Mr. Cuomo. A number of his largest financial backers, some of the biggest names on Wall Street, also happened to be staunch supporters of charter schools. According to campaign finance records, Mr. Cuomo’s re-election campaign has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from charter school supporters, including William A. Ackman, Carl C. Icahn, Bruce Kovner and Daniel Nir.

Ravitch further explained:

Moskowitz was ready. Her friends on Wall Street and the far-right Walton Family Foundation paid out nearly $5 million for television ads attacking Mayor de Blasio as a heartless, ruthless, possibly racist politician who was at war with charter schools and their needy students. The ads showed the faces of adorable children, all of them being kicked out of “their” school by a vengeful mayor who hates charter schools. The ads never acknowledged that the Mayor had approved fourteen out of seventeen charter proposals. Moskowitz, whose charter chain pays more than $500,000 a year for the services of for SDK Knickerbocker, a high-powered D.C. public relations firm, also made the rounds of television talk shows, where she got free air time to lash out at de Blasio for allegedly “evicting” her needy students from “the highest performing school in New York state.” Meanwhile, the Murdoch-owned media—not only The New York Post but also The Wall Street Journal and Fox News—kept up a steady barrage of hostile stories echoing Moskowitz’s claims against de Blasio.

None of the talking heads checked the facts. None knew or acknowledged that approving the middle school Moskowitz was denied would have meant the actual eviction of the most needy students of all—students at P.S. 149 with special needs. Or that her own existing school in that building has no students with high levels of disability, in contrast with Harlem’s neighborhood public schools, where such students account for 14 percent of the school population. Or that Moskowitz’s school has half as many students who are English learners as the neighborhood public schools. Or that her school is not the highest performing school in the state or the city. (In English language arts, Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academy 4 ranked eighty-first in the city, with 55 percent of its students passing the latest state test; in math, the school was thirteenth in the city, with 83 percent of students passing the state test.) Or that nearly half her students leave within a few years. Or that her schools spend $2,000 more per student than the neighboring schools. Or that Moskowitz is paid $485,000 a year to oversee fewer than seven thousand students.

All of these facts were known by the de Blasio administration. But the new mayor seemed helpless. Somehow this man who had run a brilliant campaign to change the city was left speechless by the charter lobby. His poll numbers took a steep dive. He never called a press conference to explain his criteria for approving or rejecting charter schools, each of which made sense: for example, he would not approve a charter if it displaced students with disabilities; if it placed elementary students in a building with high school students; if it required heavy construction; or if it had fewer than 250 students. Reasonable though his criteria were, they were not enough for the charter lobby.

What happened?

The governor and legislators came up with a budget deal that requires public schools to give space, rent free, to charter schools or offer rent subsidies for private space (that could total tens of millions of dollars) and takes away de Blasio’s power to deny co-locations. In exchange de Blasio gets $300 million for pre-kindergarten programs that he wanted. Moskowitz, of course, gets  what she wanted.

De Blasio recently made a conciliatory speech after a conversation with former president Bill Clinton, and according to the Times, called some of the billionaires on Wall Street who had paid for the attack ads against him, to ask for a cessation of hostilities. Ravitch, in the New York Review of Books blog, said de Blasio did what he had to do.

De Blasio decided he could not win this war. The other side had too much money and proved it could drive down his poll numbers. He said that the charter schools could help public schools, but in reality, charter schools could learn a few things from the public schools, like how to teach children with disabilities and second-language English learners. Contrary to popular myth, the charter schools are more racially segregated than public schools and have performed no better than the public schools on the most recent state tests. But what they have behind them is vast resources, and de Blasio capitulated…. His speech at Riverside Church offered an olive branch, all but conceding that the charter lobby had beaten him. He followed up his conciliatory remarks by creating a committee to review the space needs of the city’s schools and appointed to it representatives of the charter sector, which remains hungry for more free space from the Mayor.

But Ravitch says that Moskowitz’s victory here may have an unexpected consequence for her and the whole charter movement:

Her schools do not operate like public schools. They are owned and managed by a private corporation with a government contract. They make their own rules. They choose their own students, kick out those they don’t want, and answer to no one. No public school would be allowed to close its doors and take its students on a political march across the Brooklyn Bridge or bus them to Albany to lobby the statehouse; the principal would be fired instantly.

Consider the court battle initiated by Moskowitz that played out in the midst of the confrontation with the mayor: a judge in New York’s State Supreme Court ruled, as Moskowitz hoped, that the State Comptroller has no power to audit her schools, because they are “not a unit of the state.” Put another way, her schools are not public schools. And, as the public begins to understand what that means, that lesson may ultimately be the undoing of this stealth effort to transfer public funds to support a small number of privately managed schools, amply endowed by billionaires and foundations, that refuse to pay rent and are devoted to competing with, not helping, the general school population.

What will it mean for New York City to have two school systems, both supported with public money, with one free to choose and remove its students and the other required to accept all students? A recent study found that New York State has the most segregated schools in the nation, and that the charters are even more segregated than the public schools. In 2014, the year that we remember the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, it is passing strange to find that New York City—and school districts across the nation—are embarked on the re-creation of a dual school system.